Sheep - joining the show circuit
If you want to show your sheep Tim Tyne can help you ensure you are prepared.
Quality, not quantity, is the approach to showing our sheep. We’ve only ever exhibited stock on five occasions, but those outings have secured us 11 first prizes, three Reserve Champions, two Champions and one Supreme Interbreed Champion, together with 20 other lesser placings, so somewhere along the line we must be doing something right! Here, I’ll attempt to pass on some of what we’ve learnt over the past few years, which will hopefully provide a useful starting point for anyone considering launching themselves (and their sheep) onto the show circuit.
Where to showSome enthusiastic showmen will enter every event within reasonable distance, and are fully occupied throughout the whole of the summer. However, maintaining sheep in show condition for extended periods, without having them “go over”, or stale, is an art in itself, and best left to the professionals. My advice to the beginner would be to set your sights on one particular event, and gradually build up the sheep so that they look at their best on that day. After the event, the sheep can be roughed off, and, if you’ve enjoyed the experience, you can begin to plan a more ambitious timetable for the following year.For most first-time competitors, the obvious place to start will be at a local agricultural show. These small events are usually “un-affiliated”, meaning that it is not necessary for your sheep to be registered with a breed society, as there are no society awards on offer. Having said that, there may well be classes or prizes specifically for members of local clubs or organisations, particularly in areas where one specific type of sheep (usually a local breed or sub-type) is very popular. The local shows tend to be very friendly affairs where everyone knows each other, however there may be long-established hierarchies – everyone knows that old so-and-so always wins such-and-such a class – so don’t be too dismayed if you’re beaten by the judge’s wife’s second cousin, with a sheep that’s not a patch on your own!Our own “target” event is the RWAS Smallholder & Garden Festival, held at Builth Wells each year in May. One of the beauties of this show is that there are no classes for Maedi Visna (MV) accredited sheep, so the event is not dominated by professional showmen with commercial breeds. I think it would be fair to say that this is the only large show of its kind, where the amateur takes centre stage.
Which breed?Despite what people may say about only doing it for a bit of fun, the principle reason for taking sheep to shows is to try to win prizes. Therefore, aim to choose a breed which, as a beginner, you will at least have a slim chance of success. I suggest that you avoid the really popular breeds, or you’ll be competing in huge classes at every event – at the 2007 Royal Welsh show, for example, there were around 300 entries in the Texel section, with almost 80 sheep in one class – that’s pretty stiff competition! Also avoid the really obscure types or you’ll always end up having to compete in the “any other breeds” category. Many of the traditional native breeds are sufficiently abundant to have their own scheduled classes, without being so popular that the numbers are daunting. In order to compete at the larger shows your sheep will need to be registered with the relevant breed society, of which you will have to be a member. Consider that in some breeds, most flocks have MV accredited status: It may be financially unjustifiable to attempt to attain such status in a small flock, particularly where a mix of breeds are kept, yet competing with non-MV sheep of these breeds may place you at a disadvantage in the show ring, and could prevent you from exhibiting at the breed society’s own events.If it is your intention to attend local shows with a local breed, then be aware of regional variations within that breed – you may have lovely Welsh Mountain sheep, but if they happen to be the type from the other side of the hill, you’ll not get a look in!The best thing would be to get out and about a bit, visit some shows and learn to identify the various breeds (some of which are very similar in appearance – woe betide you if you put your foot in it by calling someone’s kerry hill a speckleface!). Speak to the breeders and exhibitors of the types that take your fancy, and find out about the relevant breed societies – some are very open and welcoming, whereas others may be cliquier. Most showmen are happy to help a newcomer, and will gladly guide you as you take your first tottering steps into the show ring, seemingly very proud of their protégée. Be warned though: the supply of goodwill may cease abruptly when you start winning prizes – from that point on, you’re no longer a newcomer, you’re a rival! Picking the teamAt all shows there will be classes for aged rams, shearling rams, aged ewes (which must have reared lambs in the current season), and shearling ewes. Events later in the year will also include classes for male and female lambs. In addition, there may be specials such as a group of three (one male / two females), a ewe with her own lambs, and for a pair of butcher’s lambs. I suggest that you don’t try taking too many sheep to your first show, but by selecting a suitable team you may in fact be able to enter plenty of classes. One ram, together with a ewe and her twin lambs (one male, one female) would enable you to compete in seven of the above-mentioned categories, whilst allowing you to devote all of your attention to just a few animals.Begin making a tentative team selection well in advance, perhaps even in the previous year. You can gradually thin down your selection, depending on how each individual develops. Some exhibitors won’t make a final choice until the very morning of the show! Make sure you pick a few extras to safeguard against mishaps – it would be a shame to pin all you’re hopes on one ewe, only to find her barren!It goes without saying that the sheep that you choose to show should be correct in terms of breed characteristics, but equally important, if not more so, is the animal’s conformation – see Picking your team: what to look for below. In some breeds, obsessive selection for particular markings or other characteristics of appearance has been detrimental to the overall strength of the breed, and the show ring is largely to blame for this trend. In my opinion, a really well put together animal shouldn’t be moved down the line just because it happens to have a little bit of black where there should be white, or vice versa.
To shear or not to shear? that is the question!Many breed societies specify that sheep should be shorn bare after the 1st January in the year in which they are being shown. This is, of course, rather an open ended ruling, and liable to deliberate mis-interpretation – some exhibitors may shear at the end of the show season, say October, claiming (correctly, of course) that October is after January! However, this is not the spirit in which the rule was intended! Other breed societies specify a period within which sheep should be shorn, for example “...all sheep must be shorn bare between January 1 and July 15 of the year in which they are being shown” which very sensibly closes the loophole. And some individual shows have their own ruling – the schedule for Cerrigydrudion show, held in September, in North Wales, clearly states that “All sheep must have been really and fairly shorn bare after March 1st [of the current year] and judges are directed to disqualify any exhibit if they are of the opinion that the same have not been properly sheared.”If you aim to exhibit at just one show in the season, then you can shear at the time that will have your sheep looking at their best for that event, and still remain within the rules. For a show in May, June or early July, shear the sheep late the year before, then shear them again immediately after the show. For shows later in the year, shear in early January. (Unless you’re going to Cerrigydrudion...)
FeedingThis is one area of show preparation where there are almost as many trains of thought as there are shepherds! There are no hard and fast rules, and everyone tries different combinations of ingredients and regimes in the hope of giving their sheep an advantage over their rivals!
10 tips on feeding:1. Start feeding at “tit-bit” level well in advance of the show, so that the sheep are used to coming up to the troughs. Hopefully this will result in them taking readily to the increased feed level in the final run up, and should mean that less feed will be required to put a final edge on their condition.2. Whichever feed you choose to use, it must be something that your sheep like! There are a number of “ram mixes” available that are very palatable.3. As you increase the level of feed in the final few weeks before the show, divide the total amount into several feeds per day.4. Include plenty of sugar beet pulp or nuts in the diet, in order to maintain sufficient fibre intake. Either feed dry as part of the ration, or soak and feed separately. 5. The occasional minor digestive upsets that may be caused by high levels of cereal feeding can often be countered by dosing the animal with live yoghurt. 6. Provide high energy licks, of the sort usually used for ewes in late pregnancy. Tithebarn’s “Triple Energy” blocks are excellent, and give the sheep a real bloom.7. Rams in particular should have a lump of natural rock salt to lick.8. Ensure plenty of fresh water is always available.9. When the sheep are housed in the final few days before the show, provide roughage in the form of straw rather than hay. If they’re allowed to bulk up on hay they will have a reduced appetite for the trough feed, and may develop a rather pot-bellied appearance. 10. Don’t feed the sheep immediately prior to departure, or immediately on arrival at the showground. Whilst away from home, reduce the level of concentrate feed, and provide coarse hay and / or soaked beet pulp.
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WashingWhether or not the fleece should be washed prior to a show varies between breeds, so find out what is the norm for the type you’ll be showing. Even then you may be caught out – I once took a group of carefully washed rams to a sale, only to find that everyone else had applied a yellow bloom to theirs! My snowy white animals stood out like a sore thumb, and looked rather daft. Needless to say I did not receive a good price. The following year I bloomed my sheep, only to find that everyone else had washed theirs! Sometimes you just can’t win!If sheep are to be shown looking really white they’ll need washing quite close to show day, using some kind of shampoo. For most breeds, however, a quick run over with the hosepipe a few weeks prior to show day will suffice. Some exhibitors do not wash their sheep at all. A “bloomed” appearance can be achieved by applying a weak solution of Jeyes fluid using a knapsack sprayer, then turning the sheep out in hot sunshine to dry.
PreparationThe final preparation – trimming, brushing, etc – takes place in stages over the last fortnight before the show.The down breeds of sheep, such as the Hampshire and Southdown, are heavily trimmed, with the fleece being meticulously sculpted into a shape that enhances the animal’s meaty conformation. At the other extreme are the really hardy hill breeds, where washing of the face and legs and a quick brush down are all that is required. Some breed societies (the Lleyn, for example, and the Texel) specify that sheep must be shown untrimmed. Preparing longwool breeds, such as Wensleydales, is another matter all together, and something I know nothing about. Lynne Jackson touched on the subject in her excellent article “Sheep on Show” in the January 2007 issue of CS. (To order back copies of Country Smallholding call 0844 8482892.) Our own breed, the Improved Welsh, takes a middle-of-the-road approach, so the guide on page 25 should provide a useful basis for most breeds.
Now we’ve done all we can. Shortly the steward calls our class, so we put nice clean halters on the sheep (remembering to lead from the nearside), slip on our white coats, and enter the ring. Now it’s all in the hands of the judge. With luck, we’ll win. If not, well it’s only the opinion of one man on one day isn’t it? There’s always next time...Good luck!